Small Blessing: Amid candles and incense, altar boy shines at Easter
A lot could go wrong.
You could trip on your cassock and fall down in front of hundreds of people. You could brush a candle flame with your sleeve and set yourself on fire. You could daydream for a few seconds and miss your cue to ring the bell. You could hand Father the wrong cruet, walk to the wrong spot, or stand when you should be kneeling. You could break into a fit of uncontrollable giggling.
Holy Week there's even more pressure. The ceremonies leading up to Easter, performed just once a year, are unfamiliar.
That is why, at Blessed Sacrament Church in the Mount Pleasant section of Providence, the pastor calls on his most trusted altar servers.
Like Michael Hannon.
Michael is an eigth grader who's been serving Mass for four years, and who trains many of the younger servers. He served the Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, as well as last night's Easter vigil.
He's so busy because he's the only one on the roster who knows how to light the thurible, which some servers call "the incense thing," although Michael tries to use the right terms.
Chalice. Cruets. Chasuble. Cassock. Surplice. Ciborium.
The words are as old as the church itself.
And actually, in the altar-serving biz, not much has changed. Basically, a server's job is to pay attention and be helpful.
Which is as good a definition of a religious life as any.
" 'And so he washed the feet of his disciples . . .' - that is your cue to come out," the Rev. Charles E. Maher tells his three helpers during a Wednesday morning rehearsal for the Holy Thursday Mass, which recalls the Last Supper, Jesus' final meal with his diciples.
They're in the sacristy, the room just off the altar where priests and servers get ready for Mass.
It's a large, high-ceilinged room, lined by wooden closets and cabinets, with a pew in the middle, a cluster of candle stands at one end and other ecclesiastical equipment within easy reach. There's also a sink, at which Michael will ready the incense.
Incense will be key at this service.
Not only must Michael quickly manage the tricky job of getting it lit - twice - but at one point, he'll have to walk backward with the thurible, ahead of Father, down four marble steps, then a few feet more, and down a fifth step, all the while rhythmically swinging the thurible on its chain, being careful not to catch his heel on the hem of his long black cassock, and then continue to walk in procession, still backward, the entire length of the enormous, dim church and back again.
"We've never lost anyone," Father assures him.
It reminds the priest of that line about Ginger Rogers, doing everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. "You're gonna do it backwards," he tells Michael. "Only we're gonna skip the high heels."
First, though, there'll be the washing of the feet.
The ceremony reenacts Jesus' poetic gesture of washing his disciples' feet to teach them a lesson about serving others, but Father Maher doesn't get into any of that with his servers.
This rehearsal is about getting them to hit their mark at the right moment. They are, after all, students at Blessed Sacrament School next door, and should already know the background.
Twelve parishioners will be seated in chairs across the front of the altar, as Father Maher, Michael and the two other servers - Kristen Spencer, 12, and Jennifer Giblin, 13 - move along the line.
Michael will hold a porcelain basin, Jennifer will carry a pitcher of water and Kristen will carry a stack of towels, so that Father Maher may "wash" each person's right foot and kiss it.
"Pitcher on the left, bowl on the right, towels behind," Father instructs them as they head out to the altar for a walk-through.
Morning sunlight streams through the stained-glass rose window at the back of the church.
Built of red brick, and distinguished by arches and apses and a gorgeous bell tower, it rises from the landscape, over the row houses, convenience stores, taverns and sandwich shops like something out of Florence. (Its face is almost identical, says Father Maher, to the Cathedral of St. Francis in Assisi, which was damaged not long ago in an earthquake.)
By now, the interior of the church has a worn, well-prayed-in feel, but it is also an artistic wonder. Everywhere, there are paintings, stained glass, tilework, and carvings in wood and marble, all beneath a magnificent, cinquefoil-style, vaulted ceiling made of cypress.
(Father Maher says he was fond of ribbing former Bishop Louis B. Gelineau that "the ceiling of my church is cypress. The ceiling of your church, the cathedral, is pine.")
Through the years, Blessed Sacrament has produced 101 nuns, 94 priests and 4 bishops - so many religious that the parish came to be known as the Holy Land. One of the bishops was the late Russell J. McVinney; another is the newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. McManus. Both were altar boys.
"It was a wonderful experience," says Bishop McManus.
He remembers solemn Masses, sung in Latin, framed by candlelight processions. He remembers worrying about dropping the big, red Roman missal. And struggling to find the wick of a six-foot candle with a long candle lighter, "when you're about 5'2'."
"There always seemed to have been young priests assigned to the parish," he says. "They were great role models for us, took us to baseball and basketball games, and I think one of the reasons why we wanted to be on the altar as servers was we had such admiration for the priests."
These days, there are no young priests at Blessed Sacrament. Father Maher, 68, runs the parish largely by himself. (A second priest, who helps out with weekend Masses, has a full-time teaching job at Providence College.)
Sometimes, Father Maher will tell his servers, "Remember, Father is getting older, and if you see the chalice isn't out, you have to say, 'Father, where's your chalice?' "
He and his three helpers are heading back to the sacristy now, having rehearsed the Holy Thursday ceremony twice, and he expresses satisfaction with his acolytes.
"They take it seriously. It's nice."
To take it seriously - that's really all he asks.
Altar servers may look like little priests, going solemnly about their duties in clerical garb, but they are, maddeningly, kids.
"Distracted? Their middle names are distraction]" says Father Maher. "Doesn't take anything to distract them]"
Father Maher is a reserved gentleman, but this subject - the foibles of altar boys and altar girls - makes him leap to his feet in this small parlor of the rectory.
"I am painfully aware] That is my whole problem] I pray that I could be someone who doesn't see things, but I see everything] I have eyes in the back of my head] I see everything. It really is a cross."
He'll be standing up at the altar, doing his best to both read the prayers and connect with the congregation ("and of course, I've got these doggone bifocals"), when, out of the corner of his eye, what will he see going on at one of the kneelers?
"Miss Pitty-pat over here rearranging her skirt]" he says, demonstrating a manic bout of smoothing and tugging. "And then I look out and I can see all the people in the front row all looking at her, and they're not listening to me at all]"
Other sins of altar servers include whispering, turning around at every sound and fidgeting near the casket at a funeral.
He'll glare at them, he says, for all the good it does, but "I never embarrass them. I never correct them on the altar. That's a rule of thumb. I would've been mortified if anyone had done that to me."
Typically, each year, he selects a new batch of servers from among the fifth graders and trains them one a time, a new one with an experienced one, during Lent - "I call it my Lenten penance."
Those chosen need not have good grades - "Oh, heavens no, I wouldn't have any servers" - but they should be able to take direction.
What is it that makes Michael a good server?
"He's just very responsible," says the priest. "Almost too much so. I see a lot of myself in Michael, and if you're too responsible sometimes, you're going to have a rather difficult life.
"He worries. Others get up there, they wouldn't care if the baldachin" - the domed structure over the altar - "fell down. They seem to be much happier.
"I think sometimes, 'Gee, I don't want to take advantage of this kid, always relying on him because he's so responsible and making him more of a worrywart.' "
Indeed, Michael Hannon is a serious lad, with a face out of a Norman Rockwell painting - the one of the boy in the doctor's office.
He says he's an altar server because Father asked him to be one.
"He doesn't ask everybody. You have to be responsible," he says. "When you're asked to serve a Sunday Mass, you're supposed to show up. Some people don't show up to serve."
Michael's mother, Eileen, is a pastoral assistant for the parish and runs the religious education program. She also schedules the altar servers, so whenever there's a no-show, Michael inevitably pinch-hits.
And though he's a veteran now, he well remembers the mistakes he made as a nervous rookie.
At the first wedding Michael served, for instance, Father asked for the water, so he brought up the pitcher and bowl, with which the priest uses to wash his hands before holding the host, instead of the cruets, which are used in consecrating wine.
"The other altar server had to get the water," he says, as if the memory still stings.
Then there was the time - it was a noon Mass on a Friday in Lent - when he walked all the way around the back of the altar to get to his place. And the time he rang the bell at the wrong time. And the time he couldn't get the lid off the container of incense.
It's okay. He can comfort the trainees by saying, "Don't worry, I made that mistake a million times."
One thing about serving, he says, you have to be flexible. One priest might expect him to pour the water into the chalice after communion. Another priest might like to do it himself.
If you're not experienced, he says, "it could throw you off."
Michael acknowledges that the people in the pews probably don't even notice small missteps, but Father - "he picks up on all the little mistakes."
Michael politely gives as good as he gets.
"If he made a mistake, I go, 'Father, you made a mistake tonight.' He goes, 'Yes, I know.' One time, he started to sing. I said, 'Were you supposed to sing there?' 'I don't think so.' "
In his non-serving and non-school hours, Michael can be found most days shooting hoops with friends at a neighborhood playground. He's a starter on the school basketball team and made the all-star team at his summer basketball camp.
He has a B-plus average in school, and his favorite subject, after phys. ed., is social studies.
Many of his friends also attend Blessed Sacrament School, so they all know he "serves," and it's not an issue. "I'm not sure they understand why I do," he says, and in fact, "I don't really have a reason why I serve. I was asked to serve and I never think about it, why I serve. Doesn't really cross my mind."
Usually, he gets tips for doing weddings and, once in awhile, for funerals. But that's not why he serves.
People do ask if he wants to be a priest - "Some of them are serious and some are kidding around." He tells them no, he's not interested in that.
Asked what Holy Week means to him, he says he knows "it's the biggest church week in the whole year."
Does he pray?
"Uh, yeah," he says. "After Communion, I pray, and really think about it. And other times, I just stand there." Occasionally, he says, he offers up a silent intention during that part of the Mass.
One thing he doesn't like to do up on the altar is sing. "I don't have a good voice," he says, "so I really don't sing. Unless my mother's watching. Then I have to sing."
Asked if he prays when he's not in church, he says he'll sometimes make the sign of the cross if the ball goes in the hoop. So do most of his teammates, even the non-Catholic ones.
Does he really believe in the sacrifice of the Mass, that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?
"Yeah," he says. "Some people say that's not real. Some people question it. Because I'm a Catholic, I do believe it.
On Thursday afternoon, after school, Michael is shooting hoops.
He's got on baggy, blue shorts and a T-shirt, and his face glows pink under his red hair as he darts all over the pavement, stealing and passing and blocking shots with a well-placed arm.
Of the girls and boys playing today, he's among the shortest, but it doesn't seem to matter. He plays seriously, like it's for something - and does so silently, except to check the score.
Two hours later, he's in church. He seems happy enough to be here. But he grants that some days, when it's nice out, he'd rather be playing basketball.
His two less-experienced, fellow servers are nervous. They giggle into their hands as they wait in the sacristy, while Michael checks and rechecks Father Maher's list of detailed instructions.
Then comes the cue: "And so he washed the feet of his disciples . . . "
And they're gone, drawn into the Mass.
Warm light falls on the faces of the servers, the folds of their clothes, and the water pitcher, making them look like a Renaissance painting, as all the while, a soaring voice repeats a refrain about Jesus taking leave of his friends.
In his homily to the several hundred people assembled, Father Maher speaks of the comforts of a 2,000-year-old faith.
And then comes Michael in a cloud of fragrant incense.
The procession flows through the church and back into the sacristy in utter silence.
"Not a hitch, not a hitch," a pleased Father Maher says in the sacristy afterward. He thanks the 12 "feet people" and his faithful altar servers.
Outside, as Michael empties the thurible's hot coals into the slots of a sidewalk grate, just as he always does (it must be the holiest grate in the city), he reports that during the procession, the sharp smoke blew in his eyes and blinded him as he walked, forcing him to rely on Father Maher's whispered instructions.
Not seeing where you're going, just trusting.
That, too, seems as good a definition of a religious life as any.